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A chameleon material: the best modern brick buildings

A chameleon material: the best modern brick buildings

Contemporary architects, like their ancient forebears, are drawn to the durability and versatility of bricks

Contemporary architects, like their ancient forebears, are drawn to the durability and versatility of bricks

Simon Willis | October 23rd 2017

In 1971 Louis Kahn, an American architect, was giving a masterclass at the University of Pennsylvania. In the course of a passage about how architects are always informed by their materials, he indulged in an imaginary and gnomic dialogue with one of his favourite substances. “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ If you say to brick, ‘Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an arch.’” 

Red-brick university The Indian School of Management, designed by Louis Khan (Getty)

As Kahn’s role play suggests, brick has several qualities he admired: it is sober, unpretentious and durable to the point of obduracy. Early in his career, during the boom in modern glass-and-steel architecture, Kahn had been casting around for a style of his own. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, when he was middle aged, that he found it. Teaching in Rome, he fell in love with the architecture of the old world and resolved, as his son Nathaniel says in “My Architect”, a documentary about Kahn from 2003, “to build modern buildings that had the feel and presence of ancient ruins”. In many of his most famous structures – like the library of the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the Indian School of Management in western India and the First Unitarian Church in Rochester – brick gave him the monumental, timeless effect he was looking for. 

But for every architect drawn to the stolidness and simplicity of bricks, there are others who have used them to airy or curvaceous or exuberant ends. A new book from Taschen, “Brick Buildings”, shows not just the surprising ubiquity of bricks at a time when so much contemporary architecture still favours the transparency of glass, but also their versatility. In their different colours, textures, sizes and arrangements, bricks can make buildings hard or soft, blank or delicately patterned, forbidding or whimsical. In some cases, bricks even disguise themselves as something else entirely. The book’s diversity leaves you feeling that if Kahn didn’t like the answer that his brick was giving him, perhaps he should have just asked another one.  

Klinker Cultural Centre, Winschoten, the Netherlands (2012-14)    

The architects at Atelier Pro, a firm based in the Hague, employed two simple tricks in this building, which contains a library, a TV and radio station, a theatre and a café. Instead of laying bricks horizontally they arranged them in thin vertical strips, and rather than using bricks of a uniform size they mixed long with short. The result is an elegant façade with none of the rigid repetitiveness of many brick buildings and which looks almost as though it’s made of narrow planks of wood. 

© Roland Halbe/Taschen

Brick House, Rosario, Argentina (2013-15) 

Local regulations required that this house be made out of bricks. Its architect, Diego Arraigada, has used them to two different effects. At the front, where the house meets the street, Arraigada has created a solid brick wall covered in a patterned outer skin, which for all its decorativeness looks almost fortress-like. At the back, where the perforated brickwork encloses a hollow volume containing a terrace, it brickwork turns the building into a gleaming light box, casting its intricate pattern on the garden.

© Sergio Pirrone/Taschen

Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2012-16) 

Christ and Gantenbeim, a local architecture firm, beat starchitects like Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando in the competition to design an extension for the Kunstmuseum in Basel, which houses one of the world’s most important art collections. Its pale-grey bricks and low, flat roof-line mimic the main museum across the street. The architects have employed the grooved surface of the brickwork to ingenious effect, inlaying it with tiny LEDs that write out the name of the current exhibition on the façade.

© Stefano Graziani/Taschen

Boa School Restaurant, Lille-Lomme, France (2013-14) 

Bricks can be hard and unfriendly, but when Vincent D’Houndt and Bertrand Bajart designed this building for a school in northern France, they made them playful. Using bricks in a variety of colours from salmon pink to black, they arranged them to look like the camouflaged skin of a snake. The aim, they said, was to spark children’s imaginations as they headed to their classrooms. 

© Julien Lanoo/Taschen

Marta Herford, Herford, Germany (2001-5)

Frank Gehry’s most famous building is the sinuous Guggenheim in Bilbao, made from a series of curvaceous volumes in stainless steel. At this art museum in northern Germany, he does the same thing with red bricks. The building is an assemblage of six leaning and overlapping cylindrical sections sitting on an undulating base. The result looks like a set of plant pots being tossed around on an angry sea.

© Sam Hartnett/Taschen

100 Contemporary Brick Buildings by Philip Jodidio (Taschen), out now

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